Why interoperability matters in Social Networks

It’s in the news, there is a war of Social Networks. But the current system, where bloggers and web commentators ask “will Google+ kill Facebook, or Twitter or both?” is not sustainable. This type of business cannot survive in the long term. I am not going to elaborate on the benefits of the market economy, but I’m simply talking about how a communication network actually functions. Yes, eventually the digital divide will be filled and pretty much everyone will be in the grid. No, it won’t be because one company won and got the monopoly of “social”.

Think of phones networks, and their many operators. Imagine two people, living in two different countries, using different providers, one on a fixed line, and one on a mobile phone.

Can they call each other?

The answer doesn’t even require any thinking, and it’s obvious that their particular contracts with their individual providers don’t actually affect that they are in fact able to easily talk together at any given time.

Technically speaking, they are on the same network, even though they may feel they aren’t. One gets free minutes, the other gets unlimited calls to certain numbers, one has free call-waiting, the other gets an answering machine service and detailed invoices. But it’s still logical that they call one another by just composing a series of digits, always the same series, and they can even do it from some other phone too!

Now, think email. Does it matter that someone uses Gmail and someone else a business address provided by their workplace? Does it matter that one uses Apple’s Mail App, another sometimes uses web-mail and sometimes Microsoft Outlook? Again, technicalities have nothing to do with the fact that there are standards and everyone can contact everyone else equally easily.

There is a misconception that in order to win, Facebook — and before them, MySpace; and before them, Orkut; and before them, Friendster, and A Small World, etc. — need to get EVERY single Internet user as a member. Nothing could be further from the truth, and closed networks are aiming for the very unachievable goal that eventually make them obsolete when other networks unite and/or standards are adopted.

The web is still in it’s infancy, and the Net in general is still very young too. Things are still in a transitional, experimental, self-defining mode. If you remember, think AOL back in the days it was mainly an ISP, sending zillions of CDs to get more members to sign up. Think CompuServe, with its private garden of forums and content areas. Think back before Hotmail and Yahoo! mail, when you had to tell all your friends that your email address changed, just because you changed ISP.

It all changed for the better, and email became a commodity, allowing users to choose their preferred provider, system, software, etc.

As a Netizen, you should never have to ask “do you have Facebook?” to be able to communicate with your network of friends, family, colleagues. It should be as natural as asking for someone’s phone number, without asking who their service provider is. Savvy power-users and geeks will be on all networks, while others will see it as a waste of time and get social nausea and claim that “email is enough” for them to keep in touch with loved ones. It’s a ridiculous situation.

About a year ago I wrote about how everyone (from journalists to Telcos) seemed to be rallying against Facebook, and the opportunity for them to unite and set some rules that Facebook would then have to comply to if it didn’t want to be isolated. A year has passed and Google has now introduced their new attempt at social, which was well received among early adopters. So it seems we are still in the single player mode, and only smaller players like Twitter understand the benefit of being part of a larger and richer ecosystem.

Just like the open web eventually brought AOL to its knees, mainly through the rise of Netscape (and after that, Microsoft Internet Explorer), we will eventually see social networks being forced to interact. This will come in part from the arrival of decentralized networks that users can operate themselves (like Geocities and Tripod allowed anyone to create home pages and contribute to the open-web, back in the 90′s), and big networks opening access to their system from other networks because they are confident their service is better and will attract and retain members/users/customers.

Facebook is like a phone provider that gives you all you want as long as you call people using the same provider. So, for a while, you tell all your friends to join. Then, they find another, better provider, and they leave, taking you with them. This is what caused the death of MySpace by Facebook, and before that, the death of ICQ by MSN messenger.

Hopefully sometimes soon, a network — or, rather, a network of network — will have enough members to compete with Facebook, and will force it to open. It won’t be easy, and it won’t come overnight. But there will be a new Netscape, and everyone will benefit from it, users first, but also Social Networks themselves.

Google+, your move.

(This article was originally posted on July 9th, 2011.)

© 2023 Yves Bennaïm